ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of civil servants marched through the Greek capital and the second largest city of Thessaloniki on Wednesday, as a two-day nationwide strike against planned job cuts shut down all public services.
Schools and courts were closed and hospitals were functioning with reduced staff. Trains were halted for four hours, and journalists joined in with a three-hour work stoppage, pulling news broadcasts off the air.
The walkouts are the first widespread strike action after the summer period and aim to put pressure on the coalition government to repeal unpopular austerity measures required as part of the country's international bailout. Officials have vowed not to back down.
Government plans call for the suspension on partial pay of 25,000 civil servants this year in a drive to reduce the size of the public sector and meet conditions to continue receiving rescue loans. Many of those suspended are expected to eventually lose their jobs.
"We are being laid off. It's very unfair because now with the crisis there are no jobs," said Christina Mavropoulou, a cleaner from a tax office in the northern Greek town of Veria, as she protested outside the finance ministry in central Athens. "We can't find jobs anywhere. We all have families that are depending on us. We have spouses who are unemployed, children, so we're here to protest."
Several thousand protesters were marching through central Athens, while another 10,000 were demonstrating in Thessaloniki. The country has been depending on bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund and other European countries since May 2010. In return, it has implemented a series of strict austerity measures to reform its economy.
They have included deep cuts to state salaries and pensions and repeated rounds of tax hikes, measures which many blame for prolonging a deep recession that is now in its sixth year. Unemployment is above 27 percent, the highest in the European Union, while it reaches nearly 60 percent for those under the age of 25.
"Strikes are temporary, no matter how long they last. The consequences of the government's measures are permanent," said Themis Kotsifakis, president of the teachers' union. Debt inspectors from the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank, jointly known as the "troika," are due back in Athens to review progress on reforms next week.
The country's main private sector union was joining the strike with a four-hour work stoppage in the middle of the day, while two demonstrations were planned for central Athens: one by a Communist Party-backed union in the morning and the other by the main civil servants' union at around midday.
High school teachers have also embarked on rolling five-day strikes, while state hospital doctors walked off the job for three days from Tuesday.
Raphael Kominis in Athens contributed.